College students trade social media help for corporate sponsorships

college-class-cell-phoneMajor corporations have begun sponsoring college classes and graduate-level research in exchange for blog posts, tweets, status updates and custom-made YouTube videos, reports the Wall Street Journal. The brands making their way into the classroom include such names as Fox Sports Net, Sprint Nextel, Levi Strauss & Co and Mattel Inc.

These sponsorships sometimes involve companies providing funding to the university at large, or the sharing of customer data for research projects. But students often reap the corporate rewards directly. At Emerson College in Boston, for example, Sprint provided a class with free smartphones and unlimited data service. All the students had to do was help Sprint with its online marketing campaigns.

Some may say that corporate intrusion in the classroom creates a bad environment for education — and some parents might not like paying tuition just to have parts of it used to push the agendas of big businesses. Many involved, however, say these social media-centric class aren’t just fun, they’re useful for these students’ careers. “We are helping students to go out and get hired,” Northwestern University instructor Randy Hlavac told WSJ. “They’ve done the work.”

While students are often the ones doing the marketing for companies as part of their assignments, the work itself helps turn the students into champions for the brands for which they work.

After creating a video to tell people “why it’s better to use Sprint,” Emerson College student Caroline Richov claims that she became sold on the brand herself. “I am certainly more likely to go with a Sprint phone than I ever was before,” she said.

Of course, this isn’t the first time big business and universities have blended. For decades, businesses, like drug and car companies, have been funding university research that pertained to their particular industry. But never before has the sponsorship been so direct.

Should corporations be allowed to provide students with perks like free phones and service — and real-world experience — in exchange for help with online marketing? Or does this betray the idea of an open learning environment? Surely, it depends on who you ask.